Budapest Thermal Baths and Ruin Bars

There are bits of travel books that I simply skim over, some parts I skip entirely, and some that I circle, highlight and sometimes even accidentally break the book spine by reading that page so many times.  The section on Budapest Thermal baths had coffee stains and crinkled pages because it was this section that I poured over when reading about Budapest.

Budapest is known as the ‘City of Spas’ and this reputation dates back to the 16th century with the Turks constructed public baths throughout Budapest and other parts of Hungary. These baths are built over hot springs that bring mineral rich waters into the pools. Many Hungarians believe that these waters have medicinal powers to help ailment such as aiding spinal problems (perfect for a backpacker!)

I opted to visit the Gellért SpaDuring the Ottoman occupation this bath was the most popular amongst Turkish residence because of its large size. With mosaic floors and stunning stain glass windows, the Gellert Spa is characterized by Art Nouveau grandeur.

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With all the incredible architecture and serene beauty surrounding me, I was painfully aware of my rented swimsuit. In typical backpacker fashion, I left my swimsuit drying outside on a laundry line in Croatia, and since it was a Sunday and all stores were closed I had no option but to rent a one-size-fits all one piece swimsuit. The most ridiculous moment happened when I was swimming in the pool and waves turned on and starting rocking all of us swimmers. I was in my glasses, in this rented swimsuit, trying very hard to keep my head above water to not lose my glasses in the waves. After this, I decided that I should retreat to the women’s only area and spend the rest of my time relaxing away from crowds.

Inside the woman’s area I watched as locals gossiped and congregated together in different corners of the baths. It was like watching my sorority sisters sit at our respective breakfast tables and gossip about the weekend. Or my high school friends meeting at the back table at the Starbucks off Palatine Rd to order frappaccinos and gossip about Homecoming Dance dates. Under the adorned ceilings of a Turkish bath halfway across the world, I felt a sameness. The settings and people were different, but the exchanges between friends remained the same. I imagined women gathering in the same places during the Ottoman Empire, throughout WWII – throughout history these baths served as the place for friends to meet. For moms to relax. For stories to be told, and energy restored. That is where the real serenity of the baths came from for me – the sameness of people over time and over distance.

After the baths, I endulged in a massage. It cost about the same price as a night in a hostel – and was worth it. As a backpacker, it is so easy to get caught up in the ominous budget and chose to spend money on experiences and not on yourself. Mediocre matresses on bunkbeds, night trains, a heavy backpack and lots of walking does take a toll on the body, and that massage was the best gift I could’ve given myself.

Feeling indulgant and relaxed, I spoke with the hostel about where to find the best cup of Turkish Coffee in town. He pointed me in the direction of his best friends shop, and when I arrived it turned out that the man at the hostel had called his friend to tell him that an American was heading his way. I’m not sure if the store owner was just leaving his store, or if he had run to the store to greet me, but he was outside waiting when I arrived.

Between the hostel family congregated when I arrived at my hostel, to this shop owner literally waiting for my arrival at his cafe, I was having very personalized service in Budapest! I asked the owner for his favorite type of coffee, then he disappeared. That was it! He was there to greet me, then I never saw him again. Instead, a waiter my age refilled my cup and brought me water. He spoke fairly good English, and business was slow, so he ended up with his own cup of coffee sitting at my table for most of the night.

It was one of those nights where I would’ve been content to read my book and enjoy the solitude, but fate had a different plan for me. While the barista and I were sitting down talking, a very tall person walked in and sat down a few tables away from me. The waiter eventually yelled at the two of us to sit together then brought over three beers on the house. I was just there for a casual coffee to conclude my relaxing spa experience. But I went with it, and it turned out that the other boy was DUTCH.

He visited Maastricht for a consulting case competition while I was studying there. It is so cliche to say but the world really is so incredibly small sometimes. We ended up having a really fantastic time talking about the Netherlands and academics and had lots of laughs. He was in town with his family who had all gone to bed, and he too was only at the cafe for a casual coffee.

The barista, on the other hand, was appalled that two tourists were in town who hadn’t visited the Budapest Ruin Bars yet. My new dutch friend and I agreed to both go for just a short while, so we committed to waiting around until the barista closed up shop to take us. After much waiting, we helped him stack chairs then the three of us headed off to Szimpla Kert:

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Szimpla Kert is an organic space where all the decorations might be one man’s treasure or another man’s trash. With a perfectly mismatched and chaotically decorated interior paired with cheap drinks – Szimpla has my vote as one of the top pubs in all of Europe. In the Szimpla garden tables and chairs surrounded the middle table that is fashioned inside of an old communist style car – so many eccentrics all around!

I was way more intrigued at looking at the decor than engaging in conversation for a good 15 minutes upon arriving. The eclectic design inspired me to redecorate our patio in a similar fashion when I arrived back to Columbia. Sometimes ideas and inspirations are like souvenirs from the places you visit. My Szimpla souvenir is explosively creative inspiration.

Here’s our patio decorated in Ruin Bar style:

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The concept of our patio, or the newly titled “Enchanted Forest” is that it is a place for everyone. Since this photo the wall with flowers has filled up with items that friends have brought over while other friends painted stars that now hang from the perimeters. Everything from trophies to bracelets to photos are now on that wall. The idea is that once you have something on that wall, it is your space. This, I believe, is fashioned off a similar culture as the Budapest Ruin Bars.

The Ruin Bars started as a cheap place to get drinks. Since, it has evolved into a space for everyone. Bizarre items that seem unnatural to be in the same space line the walls and because nothing truly fits the decor, everything fits. Just like everyone is welcome to Szimpla. I saw old men enjoying beers next to punk rockers smoking shisha. These ruin pubs are an open place for people to enjoy cheap beers and a night out. Everything goes, all are welcome. I simply LOVED the quirky environment that set a precedent that all are included.

To be honest, the decor is probably just remnants of a very humble beginning of a bar by a bunch of students with no money. But I could not be happier that the eccentric collection has remained, and that the doors are open to all.

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized

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